Back in Urania: From Brexit to Trump


Tom Nairn coined the phrase “Ukania” to designate the shambolic hodge-podge of a nation entering its sunset years, once able to rule the world, but now held together by imaginary duct tape as predatory financiers prosper mightily by sweating already existing assets and vacuuming-up the ensuing rents, all this while food banks grow exponentially as the poor are kicked in the stomach by a merciless neoliberal Tory government.

I’m back in London for the first time since June, for the Historical Materialism conference, the Brexit referendum having of course taken place in the interim.

Wi-Fi was available on my plane, and so I could glean that an orange-skinned chancer is going to be the next occupant of the White House.

Trump’s election has generated a mixture of confusion and consternation on the part of the British political establishment.

His only real supporter in that establishment was Nigel Farage, the far-right nationalist politician who is a figure of fun located on the fringes of what passes for “real” politics here.  Farage of course shares Trump’s fixation on the ridiculous notion that building walls can keep out “those” people.

By contrast, the Conservative party’s ties are very much with the country-club wing of the Republican party.  Alas, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are just as likely to be nonplussed about Trump’s electoral appeal as Theresa May.   The white nationalist sans culottes who constituted the nucleus of Trump’s support aren’t your typical devotees of dancing horses (Romney claimed a $68,000 tax exemption for the upkeep of one of these fine creatures), or a day’s leisurely yachting in the seas around the salubrious Bush family compound at Kennebunk Port.

Jeremy Corbyn plausibly said that Trump’s success marked a repudiation of policies which had failed the overwhelming majority of people, leading them to believe, correctly, that they had been abandoned by their elites.   Corbin, however, noted that Trump’s populist prescriptions for remedying this economic crisis (he called them “rhetoric”, probably a polite way of saying the new president is a flim flam artist) were “clearly wrong”.

Corbyn could have gone on to say that the collective impulse behind the vote for Brexit derived from a similar source, namely, a populist backlash against elites indifferent to the plight of those for whom there had been no recovery from the recession of 2008, and whose wages had been stagnating for decades before that.

Both the election of Trump and Brexit were expressions of the incoherent rage (incoherent because white nationalist nostalgia and xenophobia can’t provide solutions for a deep-rooted economic equality fuelled by capitalist imperatives) of those left behind by the plutocracy.

Leaving the EU would not in itself constitute a viable and productive response to a decades-old economic crisis embedded in structural conditions that are long-term, but if the EU and Hillary Clinton are shown repeatedly to be credible personifications of an out-of-touch elite, then, given the right conditions, a populist assault on them will easily be forthcoming.

Trump may know virtually nothing about the nuts and bolts of policy, but he and his team were shrewd enough, continually, to paint the quintessential dynastic candidate Clinton into the corner of privileged insiderhood.

“She’s been there forrrevvver, and she’s done nuttthin’, aaabbbsoolutely nutthin’“, he kept saying in those drawn-out cadences that became a stock in trade for comedians like Alec Baldwin.

Many white voters fell for it, Trump’s own charmed and advantaged life notwithstanding.  All it took for the strategy to succeed were those constant injections of rage-stoking “rhetoric” on his part.

For Brexiters, envenomed by the right-wing tabloids, nothing more symbolized this overweening claim on privilege and prerogative than the video-footage of an obviously smashed Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and former prime minister of Luxembourg, bitch-slapping EU member-country leaders as he welcomed them to a recent EU summit reception.

Eurocrats like Juncker in their shiny custom-tailored suits, gorging themselves on booze charged to the put-upon “taxpayer”, and behaving badly in front of rows of cameras, become fodder for anti-EU populists such as Nigel Farage (his own very lavish claiming of expenses as a member of the European parliament– amounting to £2 million by his own admission– conveniently being overlooked by his followers).

If the impulse behind the Brexit vote was incoherent, the management of the Brexit process has been just as disjointed and confused.

Theresa May, like her predecessor Cameron, has made it her priority to placate the Eurosceptic wing of her party, and opted for a hard Brexit.  Rather than dealing with the complex terms of the Brexit process on their individual merits or demerits, posturing in front of other EU leaders and her own electorate has been her preference.  The results are likely to be disastrous for the British people.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.